The youth justice system

The youth justice system is fraught with inequities. One sees a disparity in the levels of quality defense and sentences given to the young offenders. In the same manner, the disparity between the treatment of youth with private lawyers and those with Legal Aid (rich and poor; minority and Caucasian) is evident. The barely adequate youth criminal justice system has failed to benefit the young people involved. A visit to youth court confirmed several pre-conceived ideas; poverty and crime are closely linked, lawyers are rarely affordable leading to Legal Aid's mediocre efficiency and suspect efficacy.

There is a correlation between ethnicity and number of arrests within a community; no longer recorded is the offender's race when arrested, earlier statistics identify 75% of Winnipeg Youth Detention as Aboriginal disproportionate to the 10% of Manitoba's population that are Aboriginal. These disaffected youth are being stereotyped by the authorities and through their institutionalization, they are inadvertently fulfilling those stereotypes. Parents, being unable to control their children, are turning to the courts to raise and discipline them.

A 15 year old boy, shackled and in blue sweats (youth court's take on blue coveralls), was charged with mischief including a motor vehicle and failing to reside. The catchall mischief charge resulted from him breaking a window in his mom's car after she refused to let him in the house one night, the house where he was required to reside. He was given probation and the judge read the conditions, one, his requirement to live with his mom but as his lawyer pointed out this is his 'last chance'.

The mom, near exasperation with what to do with her boy, requested the stipulation forbidding the youth to associate with five friends. Ensuring her son adheres to his curfew (4pm -7am a lawyer, sure the poor acoustics had misled him, questioned if he said 10 pm-7am but the judge repeated 4pm-7am) and abstains from alcohol is easier for the mother now it is legally enforceable and the alternative is the Edmonton Youth Detention Center. This young boy and so many others grow up without knowing any other way of life than that of crime and punishment.

The surrogate parent is only going to perpetuate the problems it is creating. A Grade 9 student was seen by an undercover police officer selling $5 of marijuana at the West Edmonton Mall bus terminal; a subsequent search found 3 grams of marijuana. A joint submission resulted in a year probation and 40 hours community service for the youth. The sole reference to school provoked many questions; if the youth justice system is designed to understand the circumstances that lead up to the crime and better understand the youth why was the judge not interested in uncovering the education and academic plans?

The youth are forced by law to miss school, which incidentally they are required by law to attend, are not even given the respect of a specific start time. The busy adult docket court (Courtroom 265) had ended before youth court even began. Why would anyone enter a plea to get such a lengthy sentence for such a minor offences? Many youth with minor charges had agreed to joint submissions with the crown that were severely restrictive but why? Are lawyers, desperate to rid themselves of cases, suggesting youth take harsh sentences?

Are the youth unaware of their ability to either fire their lawyer or demand a trial? The youth Crown prosecutor stated (personal communication, November 14, 2003) that only 10% of youth cases go to trial, which is consistent with adult court. Given the concrete nature of a failure to appear, do youth assume there is no use in contesting the principal charge? These problems illustrate to the youth that often no one really cares. The financial status of the young offenders dictated the quality of their defense and the length of their sentences.

A private lawyer is going to be more influential than unpaid, overworked Legal Aid counsel and both are considerably more effective than the court-appointed lawyer, a procedure that has been chastised for providing on the job tutorials for new lawyers (Bell, 256). The level of parental involvement was higher in those cases that could afford a lawyer; the combination of the two seemed to result in lenient sentences. A boy, flanked by a lawyer and a mother, was told to come back in the New Year because "it was a case of mistaken identity.

" If just the youth stood before the judge and claimed that someone else did it, most seasoned judges would be skeptical and certainly less receptive. The unique power of a mother's heartfelt plea was illustrated when a young mother, having just flown in from Surrey, B. C. , spoke regarding her 15 year old boy. The day's only mention of trial was set for April 7 2004 when the youth was facing assault charges involving his father, he was going to claim self-defense as his father was an abusive alcoholic.

However, the well-articulated, blonde woman addressed the judge and humbly acknowledged she was wrong to allow her son to reside with her ex-husband where her son mimicked the behaviour of alcohol and violence. She requested that her son be allowed to move to Surrey, in the care of herself and her new husband. Reintegrative plans promoting his functioning, contributing behaviour were outlined and barring any incidents the secure custody sentence suggested by the crown be reviewed in a year.

The judge, seeing the weeping woman, would be cold-hearted not to succumb to her plea to rehabilitate her son. The prolific poverty among the young offenders is most evident when one realizes that they are not successful at being criminals. Firstly, they were caught. Secondly, there was no evidence of illicit wealth, no flashy $400 "Sean John" velour track suits or drug dealer chains in the style of New Jack City just "EXCO" hoodies from Stitches and silver-plated necklaces.

Apparently, property crime is not as lucrative as it is detrimental to society. Under the new Youth Criminal Justice Act, judges are discouraged from sending youth to custody given its criminogenic nature; accordingly, no young offenders were incarcerated. The disinterested judge was content to repeat sentences of " one year probation and X hours of community service" for too many of the youth.

The "meaningful consequences" and proportionality outlined in the YCJA were not seen and the lack of empathy and respect toward the youth leaves one questioning the court's requirement to consider youth's intention, involvement and societal harm caused (Bell, 262). Having failed in its primary objectives, has youth court become nothing more than the first location for the criminal?

References

Bell, Sandra J. (2003). Young offenders and juvenile justice: A century after the fact. Scarborough, Ontario: Nelson.